Sonallah Ibrahim: No alternatives to Sisi right now, but Egypt is still threatened

Mohammed Saad , Wednesday 23 Nov 2016

In a rare public appearance, the award-winning, renowned Egyptian novelist spoke about writing and the political scene in Egypt from the 1950s to the present day

Sonallah Ibrahim
Sonallah Ibrahim in an open with his audience on 27 Oct 2016 (Photo: Mohammed Saad)

Sitting in his chair, with his thin frame in a white shirt that matches the grey hair that has long characterised his look, renowned Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim asked his audience, in his typical humble tenor, to move their chairs closer so he wouldn't exhaust his weak voice. It was one of his rare public appearances, which seem to always tire him.

Ibrhaim's discomfort with public debates and arguments convinced him from an early age, while imprisoned, that he doesn't have the requisite capacities to be a political activist — a realisation led him to move into another form of expression, which was writing — he told his audience at a talk at Osiris Culture Centre in Cairo Downtown last Thursday.

"I started taking writing seriously while I was in prison. The experience of imprisonment was very formative. It was a different experience with political and humane aspects; it gave me time to look inside of myself, to my childhood and explore the path I want to be on. I went to prison as a political activist but while in there I discovered that I don't have the qualifications to be one. I get tired easily of talk and discussions, so I started gradually turn my few experiences into stories," Ibrahim said.

Sonallah Ibrahim, who is known for his leftwing views, was sent to prison in 1959 and stayed there 1964, spending five years that resulted in his famous book, Notes from Prison, which he wrote on cigarette papers while inside the prison.

"When I realised that writing is my path, I started writing down my notes in prison on the small cigarette papers, and smuggled them out of prison with the help of a friend. And when I came out I published my notes as I wrote them inside, only adding a foreword to them," he explained.

The writer of Zaat gave an indicting testimony of the era of Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s in his talk, elaborating on the atmosphere of fear that followed every citizen and haunted writers when he said, "During Nasser's era oppression was horrible and the fear was very pervasive. Walls had ears, as we say. We couldn't speak our minds. Nasser's regime didn't want any opposition word out."

The dilemma that writers faced during this time was that "there were, on the one hand, 'achievements' — and I hate that word but there were some — and Nasser promised things no one can refuse, like national independence; but on the other hand there was oppression and a culture of fear and we couldn't reconcile both of these things, and that led to a state of alienation among writers, who started to move away from political issues. That was the end of the committed literature that prevailed from the 1950s, and especially after the defeat of the Six Days War in 1967."

"The problem was that there was a political system that doesn't allow any kind of competition. It wanted to be just it, and everything else disappears, which is pretty much what is happening now. President El-Sisi also wanted to be alone on the stage," he added.

East Germany

The three years Sonallah Ibrahim spent in East Germany were very formative and productive. There he learned about classical music and became passionate about it and had the chance to see socialism applied, and for him it reminded him of the dilemma he left back in Egypt.

"During the period I stayed in East Germany I was able to see socialist thought applied. No one was homeless while a few blocks away in West Germany, people lived in the street. But the problem was, in East Germany, you had no freedom. You have food, work and shelter, but you can't speak, and that situation was reversed in West Germany and that is the problem," he explained.


Answering a question of a young woman in the audience on what he thinks about the situation in Egypt now and the mood of frustration among young people, Ibrahim said there is still a lot going on, especially between the youth and young women in particular, who have been making huge contributions in writing after the revolution.

"I get that there is frustration, because the result of the blood that was shed during the past five years and the sacrifices made is zero. But there is a high level of conscience, and the people know who lies to them on TV," Ibrahim said. "The past two years has proven that the old regime is not dead; it is back with all of its tools, and what we have hoped for in the Jan25 revolution has not happened."

Ibrahim, who never stopped being political, while he stopped being a political activist, had a message for President El-Sisi. "In this moment there is no alternative to you, for whatever reason. But that doesn't mean you are not threatened, and that the whole country is not threatened. We can't go along this path, where we subject to international corporations and the IMF. We understand that there are challenges facing the country, but we can't go on like that."

On writing

The discussion was not all political. The writer of That Smell spoke of his own literary style.

"I started adding things from outside my texts in That Smell, when I added a poem that Shohdi Attia wrote to his wife. Then, in later novels, I added quotes from the Bible, and in The Star of August, which took me seven years of work, I added headlines of actual newspapers and this idea came to me when in May 1967 I read a statement by the field marshal back then, Abdel-Hakeem Amer, where he said that Egypt is the most powerful military in the region and after four months there was a headline that says that Amer committed suicide. I put the two headlines together and I just thought that too much drama can come out of the irony of that," he said.

Empty frames

In his novel Zaat, Sonallah Ibrahim left empty picture frames in the pages, with just a caption, and revealed the secret behind it. "When I wanted to add the pictures to my text, I discovered that the cost of printing will be high, so I was inspired by an idea from a Czechoslovakian author who published a novel of blank pages. So I put the empty frames with the captions, and when it was published everyone started speculating on the meaning of it, wondering what I meant, and critics praised it and in fact I didn't mean anything at all. It was just about the cost of the printing," Ibrahim said.

For Sonallah Ibrahim, a writer has to be sincere, and literature is about fun, playing and entertainment. "I can't write a novel without playing with words. It is all about playing. Literature is not just putting words together."

A personal note

"I always write. In a stage of my life, my priority was to eat. When I stopped working, to translate or write for a magazine or a newspaper, I go back to writing. Only recently I could devote all my time to writing, but I still stop sometimes. I have what is called recurrent brief depression, which makes me stop working and not want to talk to anyone, and even fight with my wife of 45 years. But on a more personal note here, periods of conflict and silence with my wife are some of the most productive times of my life. During these times I am able to write unencumbered. When we make up she makes me do things and I don't have all my time anymore," Ibrahim confessed, concluding his talk.

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